Jaguar, much like the rest of Great Britain, has spent the last half century adjusting to, and sometimes denying, a new reality. A leader and innovator in the days of the iconic E-type, Jaguar is now a tiny challenger to the luxury car establishment. “Audi, BMW, and Mercedes are the dominant global premium brands,” admits Jaguar brand director Adrian Hallmark. “Whatever we do, we’re going to be neutralized by the competition.”
Such sober — even defeatist — talk sounds a bit discordant with the premiere of the brand’s first two-seat Jaguar roadster since the E-type: the first brand expansion of any kind since the forgettable X-type more than a decade ago. But the F-type, in fact, encapsulates how Jaguar has embraced and adapted to its modern circumstances.
Whereas Jaguars were once woefully expensive and complicated — myriad platforms, hand-built V-12 engines — the F-type is clever in its simplicity. Its bonded and riveted aluminum architecture is a significantly stiffened derivation of what underpins the larger XJ and XK. The base engine is a new, supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 that Jaguar developed from its bread-and-butter 5.0-liter V-8. We’ve sampled this new engine in the much heavier XJ, where it will also appear for 2013. It’s a winner — strong throughout the rpm range and smooth thanks to Jaguar’s use of two harmonic balancers.
In the F-type, which will likely start for about $70,000, it puts out 340 hp. High-performance S models bump that to 380 hp and back it up with adaptive dampers and a limited-slip differential. Although we found the engine a bit subdued from behind the wheel of the big sedan, it rasped soulfully through the polished center exhaust pipes of the F-type we saw and heard shortly before the Paris auto show. The sound was sweet enough to make us wonder why Jaguar still plans on offering an F-type V8 S model. At least, that is, until one of the 5.0-liter, 495-hp supercharged engines roared to life and completely drowned out the idle of its six-cylinder sibling. Both engines will be paired with an eight-speed automatic. Jaguar estimates the base F-type will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds. The S and V8 S models shave 0.3 and 0.9 second off this estimate, respectively.
The second pillar of Jaguar’s reawakening has been a conscientious shift away from the hallowed but stale styling of its past. It must have been very difficult to resist returning to the well once more, given the heart-stopping beauty of the E-type. But as design director Ian Callum insists, “We’re not here to talk about the E-type — we’re here to talk about the twenty-first century F-type.”
For the most part, the new conversation is a pleasant one. The F-type’s aluminum skin is elegantly simple, featuring only three major character lines. A low, sleek deck lid and sliver-thin LED taillights enhance the sensuous, raised hindquarters (a spoiler deploys at speeds higher than 60 mph). The power soft top provides a clean profile when raised and lowers in twelve seconds into a compartment in front of the trunk. The only let down is a busy front fascia: there are no fewer than nine openings on the hood, fenders, and grille. The E-type’s long, low nose — surely incompatible with modern pedestrian impact standards — is one more aspect of a fondly remembered era that has well and truly passed.
The F-type’s cabin departs from the Jaguar standard. There’s not a hint of wood trim anywhere, and the dash is oriented toward the driver. Purposeful analog gauges and toggle switches are a nod to classic sports cars and look much more accessible than Jaguar’s typical array of high-tech controls, though there’s still a touchscreen infotainment system. Jaguar has abandoned its trademark rotary shifter for a traditional looking automatic shifter that will allow the driver to change gears manually. There are also paddles behind the steering wheel. Passengers will appreciate the large grab handle, even if it may inhibit their access to the center stack.
Only when we drive the F-type will we know whether it has what it takes to face off against the German car establishment’s fiercest representatives. But the smart engineering and seductive design that have become Jaguar’s trademarks in recent years should enable the new sports car to put up a very fun fight.